We slept soundly in our splinted tent in the gorge north of Ottuk. For a while I laid awake staring at the roof of the tent wondering if it would come crashing down on us in the night. But the quiet roar of the rushing stream soon whisked me off to sleep.
The next morning we crawled out of our still-standing tent to see a woman herding some cattle up the gorge past our tent. She smiled at us and alternately squeezed her left and right hands in the air while pulling them downwards and we understood that she was going to milk her cows. She returned before we finished breaking down our camp and waved us down the hill saying, “Chai! Chai!” which we understood now to mean tea. So we loaded up our bikes again, the splinted tent pole sticking out the back of my bike like a bee stinger, and walked them down to our hosts’ tent back by the main road.
The kind woman continued to dutifully fill our tea cups and hand us pieces of bread but it was getting late and we still had about 800 m (2,624 ft) of climbing to do to reach the Dollon Pass. We thanked our host using the one word of Kyrgyz we had learned so far, “rakh-mat” (which, interestingly, is also how the Uyghurs in Kashgar say thank you) and offered her 200 som for breakfast and the campsite, which she reluctantly accepted.
Back on the road, highway A365 continued to shake off its pavement like a snake sloughing off its skin. We followed it past yurt camps and caravans through a river valley to where, at a sharp hairpin bend, it dispensed with all pretense of being a paved road and climbed quickly into high altitude grasslands. Despite the steep and deeply rutted state of the dirt road, trucks two shipping containers long still rumbled past us, kicking up clouds of dust in our faces.
The road ducked several times behind the rolling green hills, leading to the false hope that the pass was just behind one of them. But every time we turned a corner we would see the road climbing up further ahead of us. A fierce headwind conspired with gravity to keep us from reaching the pass and at times it was faster to push our bikes than to pedal. Finally, in the midst of another uncertain bend in the road, I felt gravity slowly switch back to our team as the road leveled out and began to point downward. I turned back to see Erica stoically grinding up to the top of her first 3,000 m pass (9,842 ft). “Are we there?” she asked. Although the GPS on my phone indicated that we were still a couple hundred meters short of the Dollon Pass, the elevation profile which I had printed before the trip indicated that after the pass, the road ran entirely downhill. So I told her that I was cautiously optimistic that we had reached the top.
We rounded the bend slowly, wary that we had reached yet another false summit. But as the downward grade grew steeper, our worries also declined. And when the gravel road became fresh pavement, we could barely contain our joy. We raced down the smooth blacktop without pedaling or braking for 20 km (12.4 mi) until we reached the small town of Sary-Bulak.
We coasted slowly through the town looking for a place to camp, when we spotted an older man and woman sitting with their grandchild on the front step of their house. I put my bike down and greeted them by saying, “Salam,” an abbreviation of the Arabic as-salamu alaykum and a common greeting in Kyrgyzstan. The old man shook my hand and I began my mime routine to explain that we needed someplace to put our tent. “Palatka, da?” the old man asked, mimicking my hand gesture for a tent. Da! Palatka! We now had the Russian/Kyrgyz word for tent in our limited vocabulary. The old man showed us to a perfectly flat grass field by a wide river behind his house. He and some local boys watched with fascination as we set up our tent and stove. We offered them some Chinese candies and turned our full attention to feeding our own famished stomachs. We devoured some bread, chocolate, and two packets of the brilliant dried risotto which Erica brought from Italy.
The next morning we awoke to a clear blue sky and a 50 km (31 mi) descent into Kochkor, the next town on the map. We descended rapidly from a high, dry desert environment down to warm, green, tree-lined roads and sprawling wheat fields. We rolled into Kochkor at noon, had lunch, bought biscuits, fruits, and veggies, and rolled out again. Just north of Kochkor we encountered other cyclists for the first time on our trip. They were a young German couple going in the opposite direction. They told us that up ahead there was a shortcut to Bishkek over a 2000 m (6,561 ft) pass that we could take if we did not want to go to Issyk Kol, a large saltwater lake and a popular vacation spot for Russians and Kazakhs.
That night we camped amongst some trees by a river, well hidden from the road. It was our first time on the trip really wild camping, without asking a local for permission or assistance. I felt a bit vulnerable and found myself turning around often to inspect movement I thought I saw from the corner of my eye. It was always just tree limbs moving in the wind though and nobody bothered us. We even had time to wash up and make a tasty tomato sauce for our pasta.
Since we decided to take the shortcut over the pass to Bishkek, we knew more climbing awaited us the next day. So we broke camp and packed up quickly in order to get on the road before the heat did. We climbed up past a large lake and back into a dry desert climate. The climb wasn’t particularly long but it got quite steep in places with grades of 10%. Finally at the top, we rested a moment take photos with some locals who were having a picnic there. Then we shot down the other side of the pass, letting gravity do the work.
At the bottom of the hill, the shortcut to Bishkek reconnected with A365 but we didn’t recognize the road anymore. Instead of a dusty, rutted dirt road trundling over mountain passes, the road had become a four-lane super highway with a lot of fast-moving traffic. We pedaled along in the shoulder for a while, battling both a headwind and the chaotic air turbulence of passing trucks but eventually decided that the road was too unsafe and unpleasant for cycling to continue onward. So we inquired at a truck stop if they had a place we could pitch our palatka or a room where we could sleep. A young guy who introduced himself as Abylov and spoke English pretty well showed me a room with two slept-in twin beds and a curtain for a door which we could have for 400 som per person. A bit pricey for what he was offering but there was nowhere else to go and getting back on the highway in the fading sunlight was out of the question. I asked him if tomorrow he could give us a ride to Tokmok, a town outside of Bishkek which on the map appeared to have a smaller road connecting it to the city. He said his father might be able to drive us in his truck if he does not get too drunk with his friends tonight. Fair enough. We made dinner on our camp stove outside and, when it was time for bed, we slept above the used sheets on our sleeping bags.
In the morning, we met Abylov's father, a big jolly guy who was clearly still celebrating whatever he was celebrating the night before. He kept showing us big hunks of raw mutton that he was carrying into the kitchen while patting his belly and laughing hysterically. Abylov said he would drive us in their van for 1000 som. Another high price but it didn’t look like his father was in any shape to give us a better offer. So we loaded our bikes and bags into his van and took off for Tokmok. Abylov took us to a shop where we could buy some snacks for the road and then to a nice place for lunch. He and I ate lagman (fried noodles) and Erica had potato salad. Finally he dropped us off on the smaller, less trafficked road to Bishkek and wished us good luck. As we put our bags back on our bikes by the side of the road, a woman walked by and asked in English if we were ok or if we needed any help. Erica and I looked at each other, searching for signs of distress, and, seeing none replied, “No, we’re fine. Thank you!”
“Oh, alright. I thought you might want a bath or something,” said the woman. I guess we had already become comfortable with an above average level of grunginess. We thanked the woman for her concern and got on our way to Bishkek.
Back down below 1,000 m (3,280 ft) for the first time since before our trip started, the air was hot and muggy. We resorted to wearing our touristy bucket hats to keep the sun off our heads. We passed numerous roadside stands selling watermelon, corn, and tomatoes and I felt a little homesick because it was July 4 and, had I been home in the US, I would have been eating all those things along with a cheeseburger and a cold beer with my family or friends. I knew Bishkek would at least have cold beer so I used that to motivate me to get me through the heat and the increasingly aggressive traffic. The closer we got to Bishkek, the further we got squeezed toward the loose, sandy shoulder of the road. One idiot passed extremely close and revved his engine in a deliberate attempt to frighten us. Once inside the city limits, we had to fight with marshrutkas and buses for space on the road. Needless to say, we were quite relieved when we finally reached the Southside Guesthouse and Katia, the owner, told us we could order a cheeseburger delivery on the internet.
The Southside Guesthouse had very comfortable rooms and a beautiful garden to relax in but at US$46 per night, we felt we could only afford to stay two nights. So we moved over to At-House, a hostel of sorts for cycle tourists run by Nathan from Canada and Angie from Bulgaria. They have a couple rooms in their house and a yard where guests can pitch a tent for 750 som per night. They also have a nice workshop where you can fix your bike and a kitchen where you can fix your meals. Erica and I stayed there for five days while we worked on the bikes, applied for visas, and updated the blog. LL Bean even agreed to replace our broken tent with a sturdier one made by Mountain Hardware and shipped it to At-House for free.
We also met some great people at At-House. There were long distance cyclists from many different countries. There was Bali and Enni from Hungary who are riding to raise money for a summer camp for disabled children. There was Sven, the ascetic German, who carries less than 10 kg (22 lbs) of luggage and cut his only pair of pants into shorts in order to patch the holes in them. And there was Jost, a solo mountaineer who recorded this video of the devastating avalanche at the Everest base camp in April 2015. It was great to swap stories and information with them and the other guests. But once our bikes were tuned up, our Tajikistan visas stamped into our passports, and our Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan visa applications were in the mail, it was time to leave Bishkek and head south towards the towering peaks of the Pamir Mountains.
Distance pedaled in this post: 210.72 km (130.94 mi)
Total distance pedaled to date: 368.87 km (229.21 mi)